Roes of Stuff

There are plenty of things to so in Singapore that could qualify as fun. Parks, beaches, shopping, all of it. My kind of fun involves fish markets and naked, hanging chickens.

I started my day in Little India, staying in a Hilton Garden Inn that has the most impressive air conditioning system I have ever encountered in life. It was freshly refurbished, and still smelled of new carpet and wet paint. It’s easy walk to bus stops and subway stations made it ideal for me to spend some time here. Plus, I would get a little culture that I wouldn’t if I’d have stayed in the business district, for instance. I wanted to see beyond the port and the splashy hotels, and it ended up being fantastic.

One of my first stops was the Tekka Center, a large wet market just down the block from my ice box of a hotel. And oh my goodness, this place was awesome. I entered through the fish area, in flip flops.  On wet, fish juiced, puddely tiles, with gently sloped floors so all the fish juice puddles can collect then drain. But it was so, so clean, and despite swishing around, the water didn’t even splash up over my toes. Sorcery.

It was fish for miles, shrimp, crabs, other creatures I have never seen in real life. A nice man hacking the head off a dinner. Moving down the aisles meant changing cuisines. From the fish came the meat, parts were familiar, other parts not so much. But if nothing else, it looked super fresh and made me wish I knew how to cook or cared to learn.

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The Tekka is enormous though. I saw fruit I have never seen before, and a store front dedicated entirely to eggs. They sold only eggs. And that’s the amazing thing about these stands: they sell one thing and one thing only. Fruit. Meat. Fish. Home goods. Shoes. Even plastic bags, like for other vendors to buy for when they sell their items. It’s both curious and brilliant in its execution. One stop shopping and yet not.

While I was taking photos, I found the proprietors were all too happy to pose, or keep working so I can get a good shot, or stop what they were doing to properly fasten my umbrella. The kindness of these strangers was both off-putting (eh, I’m from Jersey) and heartwarming. I could get used to it, but will likely continue to harbor a healthy reasonable doubt.

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This guy was tickled by my interest in their every day lives, and was all too happy to stop pruning the beef to pose for a photo.

I ended up spending far too much time here for someone who doesn’t have a kitchen. But that’s because I found the food court portion with all the stalls that sell so much good food, fresh from the stalls around the corner, so I helped myself to some obscene rice and a coconut juice smoothie.

I eventually stepped out into the blazing midday sun, and headed in any direction where the sun was at my back.

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Is this Utopia?

I mean it. Is it? Is Singapore some kind of utopian society where the food is delicious and cheap, the transportation is spotless and easy and the people pleasant and friendly?

I have never been in a place where they frown heartily at citizens owning cars and to make up for it, have concocted the most wonderful mass transit system I have ever used. It’s like the Jetsons in a still-on-the-ground kind of way.

One of my favorite things to do when visiting a new place is use mass transit. It’s so easy to get around, makes me feel safe if I get a little too lost and I feel like a real, local commuter. So naturally, I had to find the train station and go for a ride to Chinatown. The subway was clean, so so clean! Did they clean with Magic Erasers?? And cool! Air conditioning! Wifi! When I got off the plane in Singapore I saw the future and it’s underground.

Suffice to say, my first stop was Chinatown because dinner. And amazingly enough, the subway exit dumps you out right into the middle of the street. Storefront after storefront of Chinese, Singaporean and Thai restaurants, block after block. Where does one even go? There were people everywhere, tables filled, roasted ducks dangling, it is sensory overload.

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The best part is, so much is under cover that even when it rains, you can still walk around unaffected. This whole area was chock full of new food, new things to see and taste. It is easy to get lost save for the fact that Chinatown kind of loops onto itself, so you can’t really get lost in the confines.

After aimless wandering and damn near starving – given that I slept until almost 4pm – I settled on a joint that favored the Ninja Tree Frog and decorated the whole place with them. I couldn’t quite put it all together but they had an English menu so I felt safe in that I was not going to accidentally eat an actual Ninja Frog.  Since I was mostly still delirious, I stuck to the familiar and had the most insane egg fried rice I have ever had. I shoveled the whole plate into my face hole, no regrets.

 

 

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Saturation Point

…So…Singapore. The cleanest, most well organized city I have ever seen. Truly a vision from the future, a city that all others should aspire to. But it’s also one of the wettest. Wettest, she says? WETT-EST. Let me be clear, Bangkok was humid, expectedly. My jeans slid clean off my hips from the soaked through nature of the fabric and could no longer support their weight. But I knew that was going to happen. I went to Thailand fully aware and prepared for the heat and humidity, even in what we North Americans call ‘winter’.

Singapore, however, snuck up on me. I spent most of my first day wandering around, warm but not uncomfortable. It was hot, sure, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Somewhere in the middle of the day, however, things changed.

In an instant, a cartoon flash, a comic book BANG!, I became overwhelmed with unrelenting, complete saturation. Literally out of nowhere I would find myself dripping sweat off my face – not down, OFF – down my neck, my clavicle, drops raced to make a home in my shirt, ensuring it would adhere to my body as if an immobile cotton exoskeleton. This was quite a surprise given that I was so dehydrated in Denver, I could etch my name in the dry skin on my legs,  a condition from which I am yet to recover.

I continued to sweat profusely without explanation for several mid-day hours. My shoulders became greasy and slick and could not support the strap of my bag; it slid further down my oil streaked skin with every step I took. Desperate, I searched drug stores for ancient eastern remedies for hyper hidrosis. I used bits of tissue and napkin to mop my brow and then had to pick soggy bits of balled up paper off my face. Most I would get, some I would find melted into my skin hours later; I’d walked the streets of this lovely city with toilet paper freckles.  I would break to drink water, cool off, combat this silent destroyer of my humanity. It was to no avail. I had no choice but stop what I was doing and seek refuge.

I raced back to my hotel to shower and change, freezing the second I hit the frigid air conditioning and started the evaporation process.

Sometimes I buy the English cucumbers that come individually wrapped in plastic. Occasionally, I cut one end off and try to shimmy and slide the cuke out of its shrink wrapped home. I never succeed. That’s exactly what it was like taking my pants off. One cucumber leg at a time.

Here’s the thing: it’s really not that hot!

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Singapore Delivers

Whoever said this was the golden age of travel clearly never flew from Denver to New York, sat in the rathole airport for a bunch of hours and then flew to Singapore by way of Tokyo. In economy; it was on sale and therefore a worthwhile decision.

After a week in Denver, dry, delirious and chugging Pedialyte faster than Walgreens could restock it, I was thrilled to be back at sea level to experience weather again. But I had to sit at JFK, a member of the unfortunate trifecta of the worst airports, ever known to man.  Anyway.

A few hours after landing in New York, I began my sojourn to southeast Asia, which sounded like a good idea at the time I booked it. And it was and is, but still.

Four hours to JFK, four hours sitting around, 14 hours in economy to Tokyo, two hours to shop and sweat indoors, 8 hours to Singapore. So that’s four airports in about 30 nonstop hours of flying, sitting, waiting – if you’re keeping score at home.

Then I arrived in Singapore, finally, around 1 am, roughly two days after I departed, what with the international date line and such. But also because it just felt like two full days. And I landed in the future, I know that much. Fan-tastic.

My first impression of Singapore was a great one: most best airport I have ever been to, and it wasn’t even the much-lauded Terminal 4. I was so impressed and in love, even at that hour, I could have moved in. Easily the nicest mall-airport-living room I’ve ever been in. It was an especially visceral shock given the airport I started in. But you know what really shook me to my core? Caused me to stop dead in my tracks and the breath to escape from my lungs?

McDonald’s delivers 24 hours. Ordering via app.

I know, it took me some time to process, too. I slept just about the entire flight from Tokyo and didn’t eat, which was fine as the airplane food isn’t exactly the sustenance I needed after being in the air for so many hours. I arrived at the hotel in the middle of the night, so nothing’s open. The girl at the front desk of the hotel told me to order McDonald’s. Who what now? Had I been in the states I’d sooner go to bed starving. But I love trying familiar foods in new places, even this qualifies. I ordered with the app, paid with credit card, and confirmed my order would arrive in 45 minutes. Either this is the freshest damn fast food I’ve ever had or locals like to party at McDs. That seemed like an eternity to wait for sweet and sour chicken on a black bun and some fries, but I was wide awake like I had slept for months so I was content to unpack and shower and wait.

At the 44-minute mark, I started to wonder. Seconds later, the phone rang and my delivery man arrived with my mysterious goods. I raced to the lobby at almost 3am, and met the kindly man on a motor scooter with an insulated zip bag perched upon the rear. He handed me my bag and it was so hot it almost burned me, then he disappeared into the darkness.

Overall the meal was meh, I didn’t love the sauce but the chicken was easily some of the freshest I’ve ever had. The bun felt like it was just baked and perhaps that was the reason I had to wait so long. It was soft and fluffy and black, as advertised. Go figure. The fries were also good but I skipped the seaweed shake seasoning because the lining in my stomach had to draw the line somewhere.

It was a huge score and I was glad to have it.

I did regret it some when I couldn’t seem to escape the smell of the grease that lingered in the air. I left the bag outside my door but I was haunted by the scent as I drifted off into my first Singapore Sleep™.

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On to the Next

After 3 long, glorious and satisfying days in the bush, seeing animals beyond my wildest dreams, it was time to go. I checked with my mom during the planning stages. What next, I asked her. Anywhere you want to go, we go. Morocco? Cape Town? Madagascar to harvest your own vanilla? What say you?

She say Egypt. Fantastic. Back to the pyramids I go. For the second time in 2 years. We pack up, and head out of Johannesburg to Cairo. Eight short hours later, we land early in Cairo and have the distinct misfortune of waiting in line at customs again.

As I stood in line for my visas, a man twice my size decides I don’t actually exist,  and proceeds to cut in front of me, sticks his arm into the window and shoving me out of the way,  to complete whatever transaction. I don’t kick him in the shins because mom, but the nice man in the window box shoos him away and helps me make my purchase. So far: little woman 1, jerk man 0.

Next is the Room of Immigration aka Hell’s Waiting Room.  Crowded, long lined, courtesy tossed aside like yesterday’s trash. I grab my mom and escort her to the line that looks decent compared to the rest and ultimately, I hope, the lesser of the evils. As we stand, my mom is silent, eyes wide. I ask her is she’s ok. She takes a deep breath and says she can’t ever believe I did this alone, and if she were me she would have cried. That’s how insane the room is. It makes a grown woman want to cry.

Anyway, we make it out alive and hit the ground running. With my tour guide waiting out front, we go. We go to the hotel to drop off our stuff and then to the pyramids. And they are still as magnificent as the last time. And I feel like now the fun is in seeing my mom see them for the first time. Even though there really is no way to be tired of the pyramids. How can you bore of one of the Earth’s Greatest Mysteries??? This guy doesn’t.

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We continued out whirlwind tour of the pyramids and headed further afar, to see them all, not just the three big ones. Naturally, I traveled via camel as one does, and my mom and friend / tour guide went via horse drawn carriage. I wish she took the camel but after the Great Head Whip of 2015, I am not sure she’s ever getting back on the hump. (Perhaps one of the best stories combined with a triptych of the best photos I have ever taken; I won’t share publicly unless given explicit permission or I risk actual death.)

It was a really fantastic ride through the desert with the pyramids in the distance. There’s a ton of freedom in bumping around on an ornery animal in the middle of Egypt. And ultimately, it was worth the ride.

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After admiring the view here for some time and I played with my camel buddy, we headed off into the sunset. The next stop was, of course, the local super market because there is nothing more fascinating than grocery stores and pharmacies abroad. Fewer things remind me of what I’m missing and how much there is to learn in the world. Also: skincare that isn’t available in the states.

Day 2 found us wandering around the Egyptian Museum. Some King Tut action, a healthy dose of running my fingers along the dusty displays and sneezing at the cloud I kicked up. Sneaking pictures where they shouldn’t be snuck. Viewing mummies and still having mixed feelings about it.

We also went to Coptic Cairo which is such an amazing place. I think it’s my favorite next to Giza. The history of the Hanging Church is just too incredible, as it dates back to the third century AD. I can’t even do the math in my head to calculate what history that building has seen. But it has seen Jesus and the Holy Family, per the basement.

It was meant to be a short stay in Cairo, and it was, but it was perfect. Such a fun and amazing place to visit. Not to mention we made it through without any kind of uprising and that pleased momma but made me sad because that would have been a much better story.

 

 

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Rocky Road

Phase 3: We really get this show on the road. Or the dirt. In any case, this is the hardest, rockiest, bumpiest ride I have ever taken. Rickety doesn’t describe it. When I spoke to my mom, I felt more like I was chanting into an oscillating fan. How this vehicle even traverses this terrain, I will never know.  I do know that one should eat only a light meal prior to climbing aboard, lest they inadvertently barf it up.

I disgustingly digress. Safari! Kruger National Park, South Africa! We made it! Twenty plus hours of planes, a swift jog through Doha, lots of F words from my mom and one very serious promise that one of us was never, EVER again, going to fly that distance ever as long as she shall live…and we made it to safari. Invigorating. Curious. Far. Different. Otherworldly. All these things describe it and yet don’t – it doesn’t describe it enough. There aren’t enough adjectives to accurately describe how it feels to roll up on some rhinos who truly couldn’t care less that you were there.

In a matter of hours, we had seen the big five; it didn’t take long at all. But each and every time we came upon some animals, it was absolutely magical. The park itself was so quiet, you hear nothing but the birds chirping in the distance or the leaves blowing in the breeze. Even the elephant, trotting alongside the car, makes almost no noise. Just the gentle crunch of his padded feets hitting the dirt. They truly are light on their feet.

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Nothing could prepare me, though, for the scope and scale of these animals. Their size is beyond imposing, and likening rhinos to the size of a large SUV isn’t totally incorrect. Seeing them outside and not locked up in a tiny zoo – it really makes you reconsider those types of things.

Learning about the anti-poaching measures in the park, and then being able to see how peacefully these creatures exist is nothing short of sickening. Suffice to say, between this and the zoos, my perspective has either changed or my convictions grown stronger. It is impossible, completely impossible, to not fall in love with one if not many of the creatures in South Africa. It’s easy to forget how real poaching is, even in a protected park like Kruger. You’ll be quickly reminded when shown the skull of an animal bludgeoned and shot for its horns. Sigh.

After a few hours of seeing animals I thought only existed in Disney movies, and having my innards rearranged via tires, I was ready for a siesta. Back to the lodge for a nap and lunch, but not before seeing a pack of zebras hanging on the what’s essentially the front lawn. _DSC0975.JPG

By the end of the day, I had seen the big give, and some hyenas and birds that were such magnificent shades of blue I couldn’t believe they were real. The one thing about getting out of the Flintstones’ safari car is that as soon as my feet hit the ground, I want to climb back in.

Safari is real magic.

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This Isn’t a Movie

Phase 2: We made the plane, no one suffered the indignity of sweating their eyeliner off, and everyone was happy. Fantastic.

Landing in Nelspruit was by far and away the most amazing airport – no, no, airstrip from a former military base – I have ever been to. It is really nothing more than a landing strip in the middle of the bush. It lacks the formality of lanes and markers and other general aviation identifiers one might see at a regulation airport. What it does have, though, is a healthy population of impala and monkeys with their little bums exposed. They were just scampering about the side of the paved road, having lunch and chatting among their friends mostly. It was the most bewildering landing and taxi I have ever been a part of and by far the most exciting. I have never felt quite like I have arrived! anywhere they way I did when I hit the airstrip.

After a few minutes of this, we sort of screeched up to the main building of the strip and parked on an angle.  And then we just… jumped out, grabbed our luggage and headed to the exit. Everything was dusty and brown and excited me in a way that was so new and different, I truly felt that I was someplace special. Someplace I can’t believe even exists in real life and not in a Disney kind of way. But it does. And I was there!

I arranged for a transfer from the airstrip to the lodge inside Kruger because it was a good two hour ride. Our driver was a wonderful man who spent his life as a teacher, founded a school in some long forgotten area, turned it over to the village and then decided to stay working around Kruger solely for his love of the area. How incredible.

The ride was quiet for a while with not much to see. Until. Until the corrugated metal roof huts that were sized more like outhouses but were actually just houses. Some were in close clusters and others were farther away with some livestock scattered between. I didn’t see many people but if I were to describe it, I would say Sally Struthers needs to bring her infomercials down to the outskirts of Nelspruit. These little villages looked like poor people have too much money to throw around to visit there. It was shocking and heartbreaking and invited more questions than answers.

I could go on about what this looked like, but I don’t want to drag this down. But damn.

As we continued down the highway to the entrance of Kruger, the road started to turn from pavement to rocks to bumpy dirt. I was excited as the texture changed, because the surrounding area also changed. There were far more fences of varying heights keeping something in, or maybe just keeping me out. And then I see it. The most majestic giraffe I had ever seen. I am sure some of that is due to the fact that it was the first I had ever seen in the wild, but I don’t care. I loved her! And I know she felt the same. We were just so happy to see each other, you could feel the love flow through the air. IMG_2459.JPG

The ride was really quite long, but the animals along the road made it more than tolerable. Monkeys, buffalo, impala, all of it, bring it to me.

And then we started to slow down, as my guide noticed a car pulled over on the road. We approached and saw 2 young lions resting under a tree, having just dined on the dead buffalo in the distance.  I swear I could reach out and pet them as they relaxed, so close yet not disturbing them in the slightest. Apparently, they are so used to people rolling up, gasping at the sight of them, taking hundreds upon hundreds of photos, and moving along that they are no longer afraid. I am not sure if I am charmed by this or if it alarms me.

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After a while, we approach a bunch of buildings and other people at the entrance of Kruger. We need to get our access passes here but that is all handled by our lovely driver. You need proof of passage into the park upon entry but you also need to hold on to and present the same vouchers upon exit.

Finally, we arrive. A sprawling property with a covered walkway and Toyota’s parked outside. The dreamiest of safaris await.

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